National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011) starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Jonny Lee Miller

[1] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lasted because of the profound themes in her story – the morality of science, parental responsibilities, man’s vanity, the removal of the divine from creation etc. Nick Dear’s writing takes these all on, keeping the story’s political punch alive. 

[2] …great comic timing in his depiction of the more playful parts of the Creature’s growing pains, and real tendresse and anxiety as the Creature battles his own internal conflict between love and revenge.

-Victoria Sadler (Huffington Post, 10/29/13)

Frankenstein (adapted by Nick Dear from Mary Shelley’s novel) returned to movie screens this past week (10/22 & 10/29) just in time for Halloween. I almost forgot that this was on (until I looked up my local movie listings this afternoon)! In my audience, I saw several older couples (as I’d expect to see at live theater), along w/ two young ladies (Japanese), and a few other women in their 20s and 30s. Filmed in 2011 at the National Theatre in London, this (sold-out) production has been seen by about 500,000 worldwide. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Cumberbatch and Miller (who seem to be good friends; both have played Sherlock) alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. FYI: I saw the version where Cumberbatch (long before he was a household name in either the UK or US) was the Creature.

[1] …it’s rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban’s point of view.

[2] Cumberbatch’s Creature is unforgettable. “Tall as a pine tree,” as the text insists, he has humour as well as pathos… But there is also an epic grandeur about Cumberbatch. As he quotes Paradise Lost, his voice savours every syllable of Milton’s words…

-Michael Billington (The Guardian, 2/23/11)

Wherever the Creature goes, people scream in fear and/or beat him, until he comes upon the hut of a blind man, De Lacey (veteran actor Karl Johnson). This is a poor former professor (w/ a lot of old books) who lives w/ his farmer son, Klaus, and daughter-in-law, Agatha. De Lacey is kind and gentle w/ the Creature, teaching him in secret for about a year. The Creature clears away rocks (so the couple can till the soil) and fetches wood for making fire. The old man even tells the Creature that if he “is a good man,” then someday he’ll have someone to love. One day, De Lacey insists upon introducing him to the family. It goes wrong- quickly and like the “emperors and heroes in the stories” he’s read, the Creature vows “revenge.”

I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan’s the one I sympathise with. For I was cast out, like Satan, though I did no wrong. And when I see others content, I feel the bile rise in my throat, and it tastes like Satan’s bile! -The Creature explains to Victor 

The central question of this story: Who is the real monster- the Creature or Frankenstein himself? The young scholar Frankenstein rejects his creation, cursing it and throwing it out into the streets (along w/ a notebook of experiments). While Victor has been engaged to Elizabeth (a pretty, strong-willed, yet empathetic Naomie Harris), he barely speaks w/ her or shows any kind of affection. The outcast/lonely Creature desperately wants someone to love, asking Victor to make “a mate” for him. At first, Victor is repulsed by the notion, but quickly becomes intrigued at the thought of “the perfect woman.” They shake hands (strike a bargain) and Victor goes off to England, then Scotland, to do his work. From here, the play gets even darker in tone! (Now I’m curious about the original book.)

[1] Using the first 30 minutes to display the creature gradually “building” his own personality, Dear places the “voice” and troubled psychological aspect of the creature right at the centre of the adaptation, with Dear smartly showing Frankenstein and the towns people’s interactions from the outcast point of view of the creature. Whilst the screenplay does show that Frankenstein and the towns people turn the creature into “the monster” that they fear, due to being focused on the permanently damaged exterior and not the welcoming, and repairable interior of the creature.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an unexpectedly subtle, vulnerable performance, with the opening of the film solely focusing on the creature rising from the dead, allowing Cumberbatch to place the viewer deep inside the skin of the character, thanks to Cuberbatch slowly showing the creature transform from being speechless and native, to using human skills such as lying to his deadly advantage.

[2] An intense, must-see thrilling performance from both Cumberbatch and Miller. The dialogues filled with static chemistry, a beautiful and perfect mix between beauty and horror, a destabilized yet animated stage that shows all facets of life and death. A hypnotizing and cutting-edge play, a real work of art that is absolutely not to be missed.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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Hidden Figures (2017) starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, & Janelle Monae

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A poster for the movie Hidden Figures

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

This is a crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie (which I saw w/ my mom 2 wks ago), BUT about a subject we’ve NEVER heard about- three professional African-American (then referred to as “Negro”) women at NASA in the ’60s. ALL the ladies give strong performances here; they have strong chemistry that makes their long-time friendship seem real. At the center is Katherine Coleman (Taraji P. Henson of Empire)- a former child prodigy, widow, mom of 3 young daughters, and mathematician. Her mind works fast, BUT working w/ the team of engineers (under Al Harrison- Kevin Costner in a low-key performance) prepping for the first manned rocket launch IS a challenge. Katherine grows in her job, gaining confidence and respect (even from racist senior engineer Paul Stafford- Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory).

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Katherine works out the math for a future rocket launch.

In some ways, the film is traditional, esp. how the problems are wrapped up quite nicely. We get the feeling that MAYBE Mary Jackson’s (Janelle Monae) hubby, Levi (Aldis Hodge- star of Underground), is NOT all in for his wife working such long hours and becoming an engineer. However, there are moments where you want to cheer, b/c these ladies are succeeding w/ SO much stacked against them (in a segregated South- Langley, VA). Even going to the bathroom is a hassle, since the “colored” restroom is located on the other side of the large campus!

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Katherine surrounded by her coworkers (all white and male) engineers.

This story would NOT have been told w/o the 2014 book upon which it’s based by Margot Lee Shetterly. She is the daughter of a NASA engineer (her dad); she also grew up in the same town as these “human computers.” As a youngster, Shetterley knew these ladies as neighbors and fellow churchgoers. Yes, we are in the time before IBM was a household name, though eventually Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) learns FORTRAN to program the new computer.  

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Col. John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Katherine Johnson.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a math/science/history nerd to LOVE this film. (I personally liked the historical elements, esp. the clothes and cars.) One of my fave elements was the slow burn romance between Katherine and a National Guardsman, Major Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali- also in Moonlight). “It’s very rare to see a black man pursuing a black woman” (as was discussed on the JAN 25th Slate Culture Gabfest). Henson and Ali have great chemistry. The surprise proposal/family dinner scene had me in tears!

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The “computers” gather around the TV to watch Col. Glenn’s historic launch.

Films like this are important, esp. today when certain world leaders are trying to close-up borders, restrict (legal) immigration, and creating unease (in anyone who isn’t straight/ white/Republican/ male). Why NOT take the example of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) in this film?  According to historians (and his contemporaries), Glenn was considered “ahead of his time” when it came to race relations. Though one of the white women supervisors tried to rush him inside, Glenn (who later became an Ohio senator) walked over to where the black computers were standing in the welcome line; they shook hands and chatted briefly. Without the combined work on dozens of black women, he would never have gone into space! 

The Theory of Everything (NOW PLAYING)

Stephen and Jane falling in love
Stephen and Jane falling in love

NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers.

This is a feel-good love story that’s suitable for all ages (if you need something to watch w/ the family).  The film is based on the autobiography by renowned physicist Stephen Hawkings’ wife, Jane.  In 1963, Oxford Ph.D. student, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne), meets pretty/approachable undergrad Jane (Felicity Jones) at a school dance.  Since he’s not much of  dancer, they spend most of the night talking.  There is mutual interest, though Jane’s gal pal calls Stephen “odd, but clever.”  We learn that Jane also wants to get a Ph.D. though she’s in the arts.

Reality vs. film wedding photos
Reality vs. film wedding photos

Stephen’s closest pal, and fellow physicist, Brian is played by up-and-coming Harry Lloyd (who I’ve watched in Robin Hood and Dr. Who).  His role wasn’t too big, but he added touches of humor to the film.  Solid character actor David Thewlis plays Stephen’s supportive advisor, Dennis Shiama.

Stephen playing with his kids
Stephen playing with his kids

Stephen collapses one day in the yard.  A doctor tells him that he has a rare, early onset form of ALS (a condition that will weaken his body, but leave his mind intact).  He doesn’t want to talk, even w/ Brian, and decides to avoid Jane.  Being a concerned, Jane seeks Stephen out in his dorm.  He tries to get rid of her (thinking that he’s gotten a death sentence), but she won’t have it.

Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones at Toronto International Film Festival
Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones at Toronto International Film Festival

Over time, they date, marry, have children, though the road is not smooth.  Studying for Ph.D.s, living on a small budget, and raising a family is very challenging/stressful; my parents did it as immigrants to the US.  Along with that, Stephen copes with his disease, writes a book about his black hole theory, and (slowly) makes a mark in the field on cosmology.

Eddie Redmayne on The Daily Show
Eddie Redmayne on The Daily Show

Before I watched this film, I didn’t even know that Hawking was British!  I’m not knowledgeable about his work, but science is only a small part of this story.  The focus is the love between two very mentally strong, caring, resilient, and intellectual individuals.  The leads have great chemistry- they fit perfectly as a couple.  (I’ve been following these actors for some years, so was glad to see them in these meaty roles.)  Redmayne, who always has an innocent and likable quality, must’ve worked very hard on his physical transformation! Some critics call this type of movie “Oscar bait.”  The colors are saturated, the music is very well-suited, and there is a very rosy outlook throughout the film.  My friends and I liked it a lot.  Stephen Hawking commented that watching this film “was like watching myself as a young man.”